Panel Paper: Why Are We Doing This? Impact Proximity and Cities' Rationale for Regulating Single-Use Plastics

Friday, November 8, 2019
Plaza Building: Lobby Level, Director's Row J (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Rachel M. Krause, University of Kansas

Spurred by dramatic pictures of injured wildlife, statistics about the 600,000 square mile “island” of plastic waste floating in the Pacific Ocean, and the threat that micro-plastics pose to human health, the consumption of single-use plastics has recently become a salient policy issue. Among the many types of disposable plastics, single-use shopping bags have emerged as particular target for reduction. Forty countries in the world, many in the global south, have instituted nation-wide bans or fees to reduce their use.

In the United States, however, as with many other environmental and sustainability related issues, subnational governments are taking the lead. As of January 2019, 351 US municipalities in 24 states had passed ordinances restricting the consumption and/or distribution of single-use plastic bags. The vast majority - over 95% - of these policies are structured as bans rather than incentives. These policies are controversial and often encounter political resistance. As a result, many pursuing governments make considerable effort to explain their rationale to their residents.

A remarkable variation exists as to why cities pursue policies targeting single-use plastic bags. Some motivations are singularly context specific. For example, a small ranching town in the Texas pan handle passed a plastic bag ban, in part, because area livestock were dying as a result of eating bags stuck in trees and fences. Other cities are motivated by more general but still local concerns such as flooding being exacerbated as a result of bag-clogged storm water drains. Whereas in still others, global concerns - i.e. the greenhouse gas emissions, oil use, and decline in ocean health cause by plastic bags - drive policy decisions.

This study builds on literature on problem definitions, policy framing, and issue proximity to empirically examine the question: Among cities that have passed plastic-bag ordinances, what factors influence whether they frame them as primarily addressing local or global problems? It utilizes a novel dataset developed by coding the “whereas” statements in the ordinances establishing policies restricting the local consumption and/or distribution of single-use plastic bags. The sample includes all US cities that, as of December 2018, had adopted such an ordinance, regardless of whether or not it has been pre-empted by state policy. Each “whereas” statement in every ordinances is coded for its geographic focus as well as its specific substantive motivation (e.g. reducing the burden on solid waste operations, improving aesthetics, protecting wildlife, reducing greenhouse gasses, etc.). This is combined with archival and Census data.

Descriptive statistics suggest that, contrary to the common presentation of environmental quality as a “luxury good,” cities that have passed plastic bag policies are neither significantly wealthier nor more liberal than those in the rest of their state. However, initial results from a series of regression analysis suggests that, among those that have passed ordinances, cities whose residents have a lower median income are more likely to emphasize the local dimension of problems caused by plastic bags. This points to the influence of local economics on the choice of policy frame.